The first song starts immediately once the lights fade into a blackout, and “Down on Me” reverberates like a call from the shores of the Hudson River far beyond the walls of the theater. Then the lights ever-so-slowly come up on the cinderblocks of a warden’s office that’s dominated by a large wooden desk, revealing Library of Congress “songcatcher” Susannah Mallally (Jessica Wortham) listening intently while standing in an open doorway.
“I want whoever that is singing brought in to me,” she calls out urgently to the guards, and soon an audience are nodding in agreement after Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (the powerful Jannie Jones) enters the stage, shackled but unbowed.
Black Pearl Sings! earns its exclamation point not only song by song (there are 20 of them, bluesy folks songs, in the two-hour show, some repeated several times to great effect, especially the surprisingly racy “Little Sally Walker”) but also story by story, layered and contrasted by the two-person cast under the sound direction of Virginia Stage Company director Patrick Mullins. Jones, who propelled last season’s hit, Crowns, to similar heights, triumphs with a voice that shakes the cobwebs from the soul. This coproduction with Capital Rep just completed a three week run in Norfolk, Va., and neither Wortham nor Jones has cooled down any. Black Pearl Sings! is as much a feast for the ears as it for the spirit and the mind. It’s what theater should strive to do, and too frequently, fails to even try.
Highlights among the 20 songs are easily identified. Wait till you feel like joining the applause, which happens frequently, and in the stifling of sobs, which occurs memorably after the traditional anthem of equality, “Six Feet of Earth”: “Some people gain fortune and fame/While others try hard but can’t rise/Above degradation and shame/Still . . . six feet of earth will make us all of one size.”
Wortham and Jones make a powerful duo, which the show’s third song makes plain: “Little Sally Walker” gets not only Wortham’s stuffy lady librarian moving with the encouragement of Jones’s experienced and earthy Pearl, but the audience also starts to clap, chuckle and hum along with the ladies. When Pearl calls out, “Dance with me: hands on your hips and let your backbone slip, shake it to east, shake it the west,” you can feel people moving in their seats. After running through the song for the fourth time, Pearl says to Susannah (and the audience), “You dance like that in public, they gonna throw you in jail.”
While the songs are the spine of Black Pearl Sings!, the interwoven stories of Susannah and Pearl—Susannah’s searching for acceptance from male-centered academia and wealthy, disapproving parents, while Pearl is on a quest to find her missing daughter—are the play’s soul. (And it is a play with songs, not a musical with some words added to set up the songs.) The two move their relationship slowly into a duet, first through the efforts to gain a parole for Pearl from the Texas prison she’s been in for 10 years, then through efforts to find Pearl’s daughter, earn money through their presentation of Pearl’s music, and earn Susannah a way through the glass ceiling that keeps her in a position beneath her talents.
Their stories are filled with as much laughter and pathos as the songs, and Black Pearl Sings! fully integrates these songs, stories, and characters on multiple levels. It’s a worthy show in what is turning out to be one of Capital Repertory Theatre’s best seasons ever. Just be sure to wear your dancing shoes and limber up before trying to keep up with Pearl and Susannah.